Sealaska’s most recent virtual event invited panelists to share their experiences with cold water dips, an ancient ritual among our people that was designed to fortify the body and spirit against a wide range of difficulties, from weather to warfare.
The live virtual event, moderated by Sealaska Board Chair Joe Nelson, featured Richard Peterson, Sarah Dybdahl, Barbara Blake, Konrad Frank and Mona Evan as panelists. The event was part of a month-long campaign hosted by Sealaska in March that focused on holistic well-being across dimensions like physical, mental, cultural and community wellness.
“I think why (cold dips are) important to me is finding a way to build my own strength but also the strength of my family and those that are around me,” said Dybdahl, whose Tlingit name is Aan Shawatk’i. Dybdahl is the cultural heritage and education manager for Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “The other coping mechanisms and the other things I was doing – running, getting on that treadmill – it wasn’t fulfilling that wellness part that I needed. There was a piece missing in everything I was doing in trying to heal myself and find ways to take care of myself … That was really what drew me to it.”
Sealaska board member Barbara (‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak) Blake said she took her first cold dip more than 20 years ago. For her, she said, cold dips are an opportunity to reconnect with our ancestors in a very personal way.
“(The dips) allowed me to be fearless in that moment,” Blake said, “to dip and to know that the strength of our ancestors was there with me and know I didn’t have to worry about the judgement of speaking wrong or singing wrong or dancing wrong or drawing wrong or doing artwork wrong or harvesting wrong – dipping is the one connection I knew I could make to our ancestors and to our way of being that was just me.”
The event was attended by more than 130 participants on Facebook Live and on Zoom, and the full video is archived for viewing on Sealaska’s YouTube channel.
Panelists shared personal and, in some cases, deeply vulnerable stories about their own journeys to the water and cold dips, describing the impact it has had on conditions like anxiety, depression, and even bringing balance to opposite mental states like euphoria or an excess of energy.
Audience members asked questions throughout the event. Many were interested in how to engage in cold dips safely and what the “rules” are for doing it right.
Peterson (Chalyee Éesh), president of Tlingit & Haida, and other panelists emphasized that anyone can experience the benefits of cold-water dips, whether they do it in the form of a cold shower at home, stand ankle-deep at a boat launch or wade in to their neck off the beach.
Benefits extend beyond the spiritual and cultural to include health benefits that have been widely documented by Indigenous and Western cultures alike. They include boosting the immune system, improving circulation, activating endorphins and burning calories.
“I’ve always just grown up with the salt water being something that we’ve always looked to if you got a sprained ankle, a sprained finger, sprained hands, so it makes sense that we would go to the ocean if we were struggling or had challenges to face,” said Frank (Shak’shaani éesh), who grew up in Angoon.
Safety tips shared by panelists included always wearing some sort of protection for your feet; keeping dry clothing and towels nearby for when you come out of the water; and being mindful of tides and aware of your surroundings.
Participant Catherine (Kashkaani) Edwards shared the following comment in the event chat: “I love this journey back to our ways, bringing healing through our cultures. It’s a movement and thank you all for leading this movement … The tides are in our soul!”
Jennifer Quinto was the winner of a $200 gift card to Eight Generation, a Seattle-based art and lifestyle store owned by and supporting Native artisans and makers. Participants who filled out a post-event survey were eligible to win.